In the gamble that avalanche terrain often is, airbag packs can increase your odds of survival by virtue of an impressive record of keeping slid backcountry skiers on top of debris instead of buried (the statistics are eye opening, to say the least). I like to stack the deck in my favor as much as possible, but I’m particular in what I like for a ski backpack. For me, the aptly named Blackjack fits the bill.
The Blackjack is made by Mystery Ranch in Bozeman, Montana, however the airbag components are made by Avi Vest, a manufacturer of airbags that caters to the snowmobile market and makes a nicely engineered system based on compressed air (3,000 psi, can be filled locally, or cylinder obtained from dealer or direct from Avi Vest). The airbag is located in the top bag of the pack, and you can remove it (and the air tank) when you don’t want to use the airbag system. I’ve found that to be a great feature, as some days you just don’t feel the extra weight of the airbag is worth the work.
The Blackjack rucksack itself is a top loader design, with a zippered external shovel pocket, and a side zipper to access the main compartment. The pack has two pockets on the lid, one that holds the airbag, and another for storage.
My ideal ski daypack is a top loader with a draw string closure, an external shovel pocket, some sort of side zipper access, and a few zipper pockets on the hip belt. The Blackjack covers most of these bases, although it doesn’t have zipper pouches on the belt and it is heavy for a daypack. The pack uses Mystery Ranche’s Futura frame and yoke, which provide a burly and comfy system to carry loads, possibly overkill, but works well. Everything else about the pack is burly and durable, with large zippers to the two compartments, and strong X-pac fabric for the main bag. The shovel pocket has a cool new fabric that uses hundreds of little hard plastic dots to protect against abrasion. Ski edges wearing through the fabric on the back of a pack is a consistent problem I see in most packs.
I’ve now used the Blackjack for more than a month of backcountry skiing, and it has worked well. The removable airbag is a nice feature, and I’ve found myself taking it out for a few safe days where I didn’t want the weight. The first few times it was a bit of a puzzle to get it back together, but now I can do it fairly easily. The pocket that normally holds the airbag can be used for storage when the airbag isn’t in it, and I’ve even found myself putting a few nonessentials in there with the airbag (throw a chocolate bar in there to reward the people coming to rescue you if you trigger the airbag). I haven’t used the pack for much ski mountaineering, but the few times I have it carries all the equipment well. In particular, the Blackjack diagonal ski carry system is one of the few I’ve found that I haven’t had to modify to make it work when the pack isn’t full.
I’ve blown the Blackjack airbag off once while I was skiing to see what it felt like, and if it hindered my ability to ski at all. I felt significant extra air resistance when it was deployed, but I could still ski fine, so I don’t think it would hinder your ability to ski out of an avalanche. Deflating it requires you to have a special tool, although I was able to improvise one out of a ski pole tip. The bag packed easily back into the pocket, which is thoughtfully made slightly oversized. I went to a few shops before I found one that could refill the cylinder. I tried some dive shops first, but they didn’t have the right fitting, a paint ball shop was able to do it, and they didn’t even charge me. If you choose to have the cylinder filled locally, be aware of two issues: Take it out and fire it off when it’s super cold outside to make sure frozen condensation within the tank doesn’t muck up the blow-off system. Also, after you get the cylinder filled check to be sure it has enough pressure after it’s cooled down.
The pack does have a few drawbacks, one is of course the weight: 8.8 lbs with the airbag; 5.4 without. The weight of the airbag is understandable and not easy to reduce, but 5.4 lbs is heavy for a daypack — I don’t think I own another pack that weighs that much, including several overnight packs and my Denali expedition pack! The pocket on the top flap of the Blackjack is positioned so the zipper is on the bottom of the pocket when the pack is closed, so everything spills out of it when it is opened, unless you lay the pack down or open the top flap. The webbing that attaches the top flap could be a little longer, if I try to fit a rope or sleeping pad under it, they barely reach.
Another minor problem is the system that attaches the airbag to the pack seems overly complex. It uses a metal pin woven through webbing loops to hold the airbag in. I’m sure this is plenty strong, but it is a pain to use. I feel like something borrowed from the climbing world could be used and make it a whole lot simpler for backcountry skiing use.
Mystery ranch has made a strong entry into the brewing airbag pack wars (which in our opinion here at WildSnow will soon make the infamous avy beacon wars look like a water fight), and is one of my favorites of the ones I’ve evaluated for ski mountaineering. The pack design is great, and the removable airbag is integrated well. In summary, a terrific do-anything pack. (Available this fall.)
WildSnow category: Avalanche Airbag Backpack Rucksacks